University of Mary Washington Art History Professor Julia DeLancey will be featured on the With Good Reason public radio show. The episode, “Disability Justice,” will air daily beginning today, Jan. 10, and continuing through Jan. 16.
Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the show examines how disabled people have advocated for themselves in the past and the present. DeLancey describes the plight of the visually and mobility impaired throughout the Italian Renaissance and the means they used to fight for their rights and visibility in society. Her interest has translated into a UMW first-year seminar focused on case studies of artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo, who endured physical and psychological challenges.
DeLancey had never considered that the 16th-century Venetians whose lives and works she researched might perceive disability differently than we do today. She said her “aha moment” came on a walk years ago with a fellow historian who was studying how ancient Greeks viewed those with visual impairments.
“I said, ‘How can blindness not be a disability? Doesn’t everyone agree it is?’” Her friend turned to her and said, “Why?” DeLancey told host Sarah McConnell, who audibly gasped at the revelation. “It took something that I had taken for granted and turned it completely on its head.”
There was a void of research on disability in early modern Venice, DeLancey said, but she discovered a treasure trove of court documents about confraternities – organizations for laypeople. Among them were groups for the elite class who commissioned great Renaissance masterpieces, and the traditional trade guilds, as well as groups such as in her study, seeking to beg on the streets.
Some of these groups existed for people with visual and mobility impairments. Marching in processions, fundraising for members in need and religious devotion were some the ways they participated and remained visible in society.
In an effort to stay on the right side of the law, these groups enforced a strict code about what constituted a disability and what did not. The Confraternity of the Blind, for example, decided to only accept members who were “blind per natura – by nature,” she said.
“If you had been blinded by punishment, you couldn’t be part of the guild,” said DeLancey. Groups for people with mobility impairments also distinguished between amputees and those who walked with a limp.
Furthermore, Venetian society didn’t recognize as disabled those who could financially support themselves or others, DeLancey told McConnell. If a war veteran missing a limb could still work, it was unlikely he’d be considered “infirm” (to use the vocabulary of the day), she said, but a single mother raising five young children, unable to work outside the home, might be. “It doesn’t necessarily map onto what we think of [today] as disability.”
It’s rare to find the voices and words of disabled people documented in archival research, DeLancey said, but these records show that having a sense of group identity helped those with impairments fight for the rights and attention they felt they deserved.
With Good Reason’s “Disability Justice” also features experts from other Virginia universities discussing how ADAPT activists protesting the ACA repeal fits into a long history of disability advocacy, and how accessible teaching methods are keeping more disabled students in the classroom.
With Good Reason airs Sundays at 2 p.m. on Fredericksburg’s Radio IQ 88.3 Digital and at various times throughout the week on stations across Virginia and the United States. Check the website for show times.